After the 2019-20 NBA season paused for a second time Wednesday, this time shorter but for reasons of racism rather than a worldwide pandemic, few things are clear. Not what happens next, or when. Not whether change can be made from a bubble or whether this season will ultimately finish.

But this, at least, feels certain: The notion that sports and politics will ever be separate again has passed. The idea that athletes — and usually, here, it’s Black athletes who are expected to “shut up and dribble,” “shut up and play,” “shut up and entertain” — should compete in sports but not over the real struggle in American life has ended.

Four years to the day Colin Kaepernick first took a knee, the Milwaukee Bucks used their feet to make a statement, walking right off that court and taking with them, for the moment, the NBA playoffs.

Why? 

That one has to ask says much about the person, but here goes anyway: Because another unarmed Black man had been gunned down by police officers. Because Black people in this country, rightly, feel hunted and hated, feared and stalked — unable to feel safe on the streets of a free country; and unable to feel any certainty that when the next Jacob Blake adds his name to too long a list, there will be enough people who care to make even a small inch of progress.

I tried to explain all this to my children today, why a Black man was shot in Kenosha, Wisconsin, but why a White teenager who allegedly killed two people during the ensuing protests and unrest could stroll casually down the street, armed, after the alleged killings, past police, unbothered.

I was exhausted explaining, and I’m a White man who gets to tell his children — my son most notably — that the police are there to protect them. It is a different conversation for Black parents talking to their Black children, and I cannot imagine — I cannot know — how tired they must be.

But I can try. I can listen. You can, too, if you’re willing. That’s in part what NBA players were wrestling with as they debated, into the night and early morning hours, what to do next. When there are no good solutions, there are rarely good answers. 

So, yes, sports and politics — as if human life having meaning and needing to be protected should be “politics” — are intertwined. That’s the legacy, in part, of this latest attempt by NBA players at doing something, anything. The fact this column and the tens of thousands of words written about the NBA right now aren’t about games and stats and wins and losses should mean something. That’s part of the point, too.

There’s this as well: What the players did in the NBA bubble the past 24 hours was brave, and difficult, and worth celebrating. We all, to varying degrees, wrestle with the things the players did: Our safety, our loved ones, our fears, our hopes, our money, our aspirations, our ambitions, and the degrees of right and wrong and how we will or won’t factor them in.

What most of us don’t have to do, ever, is wrestle with these things in real time, in a bubble, under the glare of the world watching, where a good chunk of people — see my Twitter timeline, see yours — are so overtly racist that whatever they do, they know vitriol will follow.

For LeBron James, for Kawhi Leonard, for Chris Paul, for Jayson Tatum, for Dwight Howard — for every man in those meetings — the last 24 hours, the last year, all of it — must have pressed down.

It was difficult, clearly, to figure out what to do about a job and a game while another Black man had been shot, over and over, and again so many people seemed not to care. The conversations the players had were, surely, nuanced, painful and emotional.

See Doc Rivers and his tears from a few days ago.

Watch Chris Webber on television, emotional and raw.

“Keep politics out of sports” too often means shut up and play. That’s over. Accept it, or find another pastime. That’s another thing the players decided.

The season seems that it will go on, for now. There is clearly a range of views among the players about how to navigate all of this. There will be disagreements.

But the reason Isiah Thomas told me this was “historic,” why several former players used that same word, is because things are going to be different now.

No justice, no peace.

No peace, maybe no sports.

You don’t have to like it. But it’s time to accept it. The human beings mistreated who have entertained us with our games are, rightly, fed up. Change, as my friend and former NBA player Jim Jackson said, “comes with an uncomfortable sacrifice.”

Welcome to the discomfort. It’s way past time.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here